The Other 97%: Rural Mobile Coverage, Performance, and Access (Part 1)

The Other 97%: Rural Mobile Coverage, Performance and Access (Part 1)

While rural areas include only one fifth of the United States’ population, 97% of the country (per the National Center for Education Statistics) is categorized as some type of rural. These areas have been historically under-served by mobile broadband networks. In this article, we will discuss the significance of the rural mobile coverage gap, and what internet service providers and communities can do to help narrow it.

Why Rural Mobile Coverage Matters

As excitement grows about recent and planned 5G deployments, it can be easy to overlook the state of existing wireless coverage outside of these urban zones. While rural areas were never expected to be first on the list for 5G investment, it is expected that 4G (and even 3G) will provide coverage throughout the rest of the country. However, when rural smartphone users can access a 4G network as little as two-thirds of the time, it’s easy to see how the digital divide could very easily widen in the coming years. This could be particularly damaging to future economic development prospects outside of a few select urban areas.Additionally, rural access to wireless networks can impact many urban and suburban residents as well. One of the most consistent trends in America over the past decade has been a widespread increase in camping. According to the 2019 North American Camping Report, the number of North American households who camp three or more times a year has increased 72% since 2014. Notably, 93% of campers of all ages expect to bring at least one mobile device on their camping trip, and roughly 40% of camping households claim that wireless access can impact how often and how long they camp.

What Can Be Done?

The geographical challenges of levelling the urban/rural network divide exist hand-in-hand with financial challenges. Trenching new fiber is an expensive proposition in any environment; to do so over a large area with fewer potential users makes it very difficult to make the numbers work, particularly for small communities and service providers. However, the US Government remains committed to providing assistance. In addition to the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund announced earlier this year, the FCC recently authorized an additional $61.8 million in funding for rural projects linked to last year’s Connect America Fund Phase II auction.

On a technical level, expanding the capacity of existing fiber can be done cost-effectively and reliably. Passive WDM solutions (for example, in a cascaded architecture) are ideal for serving rural areas, as they can cover long distances with a low upfront cost and minimal ongoing maintenance requirements.

Contact us today to discuss these and other fiber expansion solutions further, and stay tuned for Part 2 later this week, in which we take a deep dive into the data and highlight some key takeaways.

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